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Critic's Notebook: Michael Tilson Thomas returns to his alma mater, USC

October 6, 2009 |  3:35 pm

With the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you might think that this town has just discovered the import of music education. In fact, L.A. has a history of music education unique in America, one that goes back at least 125 years with the founding of USC’s music school.

Monday night at Bovard Auditorium, as part of the anniversary celebration of what is now the Thornton School of Music, USC hosted a too rare hometown appearance by conductor, pianist, composer and educator Michael Tilson Thomas.  MTT, as he is known, may well be the department’s alumnus who absorbed and accomplished the most. No question, he is the university’s most entertaining and enlightening historian.

For 45 minutes, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony described a sentimental education, which began when he was 10-year-old piano prodigy in USC's preparatory school in the mid-'50s and continued through his undergraduate years. He then conducted the USC Thornton Symphony in a powerful, emotionally generous performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

The USC that Tilson Thomas remembered was part funky, part profound. A host of big personalities, many of them European émigrés, held court in an old mansion off campus. There, he heard the pianist Alice Ehlers recall her passionate love affair with Alban Berg at age 19. There, the glamorous “tough cookie” Muriel Kerr would tell the young MTT next week to bring his left hand to the lesson.

On various floors, he might find come across the Toscanini assistant Walter Ducloux, the aristocratic pianist Lillian Steuber, the composer and conductor Ingolf Dahl or one of Stravinsky’s favorite violinists, Eudice Shapiro, to say nothing of Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. [Update: An earlier version of this post misspelled Lillian Steuber's name as Stueber.]

Curiously, Tilson Thomas said nothing Monday about these famed Russians, both of whom he worked with and from whom he learned about the Russian style. It was equally curious that he chose the Tchaikovsky symphony and not music by a noted USC composer, which could have included Schoenberg.

But in the Tchaikovsky Fourth, Tilson Thomas did pick a piece that is full of the turbulent emotions, the craziness and the manic depressions with which young musicians easily associate. The program notes were assigned to a musicology graduate student, Cindy Taylor-Lutz, and they concentrated on just these kinds of sentiments that interest today’s college students (and were considered out of bounds for scholarly attention in MTT’s student days).  Tchaikovsky’s symphony came on the heels of the homosexual composer’s failed marriage, which Taylor-Lutz called “one of the most disastrous in music history.”
Tilson Thomas did not deny Tchaikovsky his turbulence. One minute the composer sounded in this performance content to hear the birds in the woods express a delicious melancholy, the next hysteric moment, he was apparently ready to slit his wrists. 

That Tilson Thomas is, today, as satisfying a Tchaikovsky conductor as any I know may well have its origins in lessons learned in his youth. The innovative educator Ralph Rush told him, “You can actually do this,” and that changed his life.

John Crown, who studied with a Liszt pupil, told him to get a life, and he certainly did. MTT’s development wasn’t always tidy. All of that went into a reading vital yet wise.

The USC orchestra is very good. The sound wasn’t consistent; some wind and brass players are better than others. But Tilson Thomas -- who founded the elite training orchestra the New World Symphony in Miami 21 years ago – understood exactly how far to push young players, and he wonderfully succeeded in finding relevant avenues into Tchaikovsky appropriate for today's college student.
Lyric melodies had great passion, played like romances that took over every cell of a lover's being. The stormy first and last movements felt as though the world lacked even an ounce of compassion. It mattered if string intonation wasn’t exact or a horn note broke, but not as much as if the note were perfect and meant nothing.

Learning, Tilson Thomas said early in his talk, is zeal. He was true to his words. And his school. 

-- Mark Swed

Return to later this week for a story on the history of USC Thornton School of Music in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

Photo: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the USC Thornton Symphony Monday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times